By AUDREY FISCHER
German-born inventor Emile Berliner (1851-1929) could not have imagined a National Jukebox of some 10,000 audio recordings produced in the U.S. between the years 1901 and 1925, which are now freely available online—courtesy of the Library of Congress and Sony Music Entertainment.
But the virtual jukebox would not have been possible without Berliner’s pioneering work in the field of recorded sound.
One week after the May 10 launch of the National Jukebox (www.loc.gov/jukebox/) an audience gathered at the Library to learn about Berliner’s life and work.
The program was sponsored jointly by the Hebraic Section of the African Middle Eastern Division and the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, in which the Berliner Papers are housed. The collection comprises some 1,000 manuscript items and several hundred rare sound recordings produced by the Berliner Gramophone Company at the turn of the last century.
“Emile Berliner was a Renaissance man,” said Sharon Horowitz of the Hebraic Section. Known mostly for his invention of the gramophone, Berliner was a composer, acoustician, aviation pioneer, public-health advocate and Zionist—to name a few of his interests.
The scope of Berliner’s intellectual pursuits is well-documented on the Library’s American Memory website in a presentation titled “Emile Berliner and the Birth of the Recording Industry”.
Karen Lund, a digital project coordinator in the Library’s Music Division who developed the presentation with other Library staff members, presented an overview of the site, which contains more than 400 items from the Emile Berliner Papers and 118 sound recordings.
In addition to the digitized items, the online presentation offers biographical information about Berliner, including a timeline and family tree; background about the early recording industry, including the work of Berliner’s contemporaries, Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell; and detailed information about the collection of papers and recordings.
“The Library’s Berliner web presentation makes it easy for me to tap the wonderful resources in the collection,” said Samuel Brylawski, who spoke about Berliner’s life and his contributions to the recording industry.
Brylawski, former head of the Recorded Sound Section at the Library of Congress, is the coordinator and editor of the Victor Records Discography at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The goal of the project is to develop an online encyclopedia of all the recordings made by the Victor Talking Machine Company between 1900 and 1950.
Born in Hanover, Germany, in 1851, Berliner immigrated to America in 1870 where he had an opportunity to clerk in a dry-goods store in Washington, D.C.
“Washington, D.C., was the center of invention at that time, as the home of the Patent Office and the Smithsonian Institution,” said Brylawski.
Berliner moved to New York, where he attended Cooper Union College and later worked in the laboratory of Constantine Fahlberg, the chemist who discovered saccharine. This experience in a research laboratory undoubtedly spurred his desire to pursue a career in science, research and invention.
Berliner’s subsequent return to Washington in 1876 was fortuitous. It was the year of the nation’s centennial, which was marked by demonstrations of various technological advances. Among these was Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone.
Upon seeing the instrument demonstrated, Berliner set about fashioning and patenting a new type of transmitter (microphone) which he called a “loose-contact” transmitter. The newly-formed American Bell Telephone Company hired him as a research assistant and sent him to Boston, where he met and married Cora Adler and became an American citizen. He left the company in 1884 to return to Washington to pursue his dream of becoming a private inventor.
Berliner began to take a great interest in the future of sound recording and reproduction. He began by examining in detail both the phonograph (developed by Thomas Edison) and the graphophone (developed by Chichester Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter) in order to learn the advantages and disadvantages of each.
It was Berliner who made the transition from Edison’s wax cylinders to flat, double-sided zinc discs with spiral grooves that could be traced using a needle or stylus. Not only did this improve sound quality, but the flat discs could be mass-produced at a much lower cost than Edison’s cylinders.
“From the beginning, Berliner saw it as a home-entertainment device,” said Brylawski, “while others focused solely on its office use for dictation.”
On Nov. 8, 1887, Berliner was granted a patent for the gramophone, a device to record and reproduce sounds.
Not only did Berliner produce recordings of popular favorites like John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever,” he even composed and recorded some of his own tunes, like the “Columbian Anthem,” in honor of his adopted nation’s capital. These and other sounds were recorded by Berliner’s Columbia Records company, the oldest surviving brand name in pre-recorded sound (now owned by Sony).
On a trip to Germany in 1889, Berliner demonstrated his gramophone and made an agreement with the toy firm of Kammerer and Reinhardt for the production of little toy discs and hand-turned players. Returning to America, Berliner entered into an agreement with several New York backers and together they formed the little-known American Gramophone Company, followed by the more lucrative United States Gramophone Company in Washington, D.C.
Gramophone companies soon were launched in Philadelphia and New York to handle the distribution of Berliner’s discs and machines, and the market also began to expand throughout Europe. To improve the playback speed, Berliner worked with Eldridge R. Johnson’s machine shop in Camden, N.J., to manufacture machines with spring motors. Johnson also came up with the idea of putting labels on the discs.
On Sept. 29, 1897, a fire broke out at Berliner’s Washington, D.C., factory. The following year was marked by the beginning of illegal competition and patent disputes that would bring down the company. In June 1900, a court injunction shut down the Berliner Gramophone Company of Philadelphia and left Emile Berliner with no way to operate.
Berliner passed his patent rights to Johnson, who formed the Victor Talking Machine Company, in which Berliner retained a financial interest. The forerunner of RCA Victor, the company produced many of the early recordings now accessible on the National Jukebox.
A man of ideas, Berliner turned his attention to powered flight. With his son Henry, he developed a gyro motor for use in the helicopter.
Berliner also became involved in political and social issues such as Zionism and public health. He was a tireless advocate for purifying milk to address the high mortality rate of babies and young children. He even helped develop a children’s book titled “Muddy Jim,” a compilation of rhymes illustrating what happens to children who neglect cleanliness.
A year before his death, Berliner expressed his final wishes to his wife in a letter dated May 9, 1928, which reflected his humanitarian nature:
“When I go I do not want an expensive funeral. Elaborate funerals are almost a criminal waste of money. … Give some money to some poor mothers with babies and bury me about sunset. I am grateful for having lived in the United States and I say to my children and grandchildren that peace of mind is what they should strive for.”
Library Resources on Recording History
For more information, visit “Emile Berliner and the Birth of the Recording Industry”.
The following web presentations are drawn from the Library’s Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers and its collection of Thomas Alva Edison’s motion pictures, disc sound recordings and other related materials:
- “Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers at the Library of Congress”
- “Inventing Entertainment: The Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies”
For more information on some of the late 19th-century music featured on Emile Berliner’s recordings, visit the following web presentations:
- “Historic American Sheet Music, 1850-1920”
- “Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, 1870-1885”
- “America Singing: Nineteenth-Century Song Sheets”